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West Side Story

On This Page: Commentary . DVD . Cast Recordings . Sheet Music and books on the Making of West Side Story

The Writing of West Side Story

Noel KatzCommentary and writing tips by Noel Katz

One of the undisputed masterpieces of musical theatre, West Side Story began as an idea called East Side Story. Director/choreographer Jerome Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein wanted to set Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet in modern dress, dealing with contemporary prejudices. But, the more they read the papers, the more they learned of young gangs on New York's west side. The "native" New Yorkers were using intimidation and violence to make the incoming Puerto Rican population feel unwelcome. Bernstein mentioned his fondness for Latin rhythms, and they were on their way.

Narrative dances had appeared in musicals for many years, but the bold innovation of West Side Story is that it uses dance to tell most of the story. The whole conflict between the warring gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, is set up in the opening, through choreography. West Side Story gave Bernstein the opportunity to write some of the most exciting dance music ever written for the stage, and for Robbins to perfect a style in which the macho posturing and violence of young men could be made to seem real, in a ballet. This powerful way of moving had been developed in two previous Robbins/Bernstein collaborations: the ballet, Fancy Free, and the musical they made from it, On The Town.

West Side Story succeeds in depicting the true-life tragedy of malevolent youth in original, stylized, terms. During the "rumble," we fear for the lives of the characters, as we would in any fight, and don't think "This is silly; boys at war don't dance. "It's an extraordinary accomplishment, the result of the ingenuity of what Robbins does with the dances and Bernstein does with the music. The book writer, Arthur Laurents, doing his first musical, came up with an invented language that plays as the equivalent of the obscenities gang members use, but, in reality, it's nonsense. None of the "grown-up" characters sing, so the musical world is reserved for the young, which makes that adult presence a bit stilted, less sexy. Originally, Leonard Bernstein intended to write the lyrics himself, but, with so much composing to do, he called upon a young lyricist with no Broadway experience, Stephen Sondheim, to collaborate. Bernstein was so impressed with Sondheim's output, he eventually changed the credits to read: "Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim."

West Side Story is a musical tragedy. There had been some before, there have been many since. Seeing it today, one is struck by how often, and in how many ways, the sadness of the unhappy plot turns is leavened by bits of comedy and energy. "The Jet Song," "America," and "Gee, Officer Krupke" are comedy songs. "I Feel Pretty," "Cool" and "A Boy Like That" use invigorating rhythms. West Side Story refuses to wallow in the blues, but instead depicts characters trying to find a way out: "There's a place for us, somewhere. "Musicals of more recent vintage go overboard, sometimes offensively, in portraying depressing turns of events.

The highlight of West Side Story for me is a musical sequence, The "Tonight" Quintet. We hear from many different characters from different parts of the stage: Tony and Riff planning the rumble, the Jets and the Sharks marching to the rumble, Anita preparing for a sexy date, and the young lovers rising above it all with their airy beguine. All these themes come together at once, a musical kaleidoscope of emotions and melodies. Every musical should have a moment as splendid.

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West Side Story 2-disc setWest Side Story (Special Edition DVD Collector's Set) from Amazon.com 1961 film version starring Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno. Disc 1 contains the film with new Dolby Digital 5.1 audio and the option to play with or without intermission. Disc 2 special features include: "West Side Memories": 1-hour retrospective documentary containing Natalie Wood's original vocal recordings and new interviews with the cast and crew, including Robert Wise and Stephen Sondheim; Original film intermission music, restored and remixed in 5.1 surround; Storyboard-to-film comparison; Original release trailers and behind-the-scenes photos, plus production design and storyboard galleries; Collectible scrapbook: Ernest Lehman introduction, Complete copy of the working film script, Reproduction of the original lobby brochure, and Behind-the-scenes memos plus film reviews from 1961

The Making of West Side Story - Leonard Bernstein from Amazon.com Filmed in 1984, the feature-length documentary Leonard Bernstein Conducts "West Side Story" follows the composer as he records the first-ever complete recording of his musical-theater masterpiece. Tracks include: 1. Arrival of the principal singers, blending off 2. I feel Pretty (Piano rehearsal) 3. First session: introduction of the principals 4. Tonight (ensemble) (rehearsal) 5. Jet Song (recording) 6. Cool (recording) 7. Tonight (Piano rehearsal) 8. Something's Coming (recording: take, playback, retakes) 9. Troyanos on working with Bernstein "Tonight (Ensemble)" (recording) 10. Tonight (Ensemble) (recording- contd.) 11. Bernstein talks about the orchestra, "I feel pretty" (recording) 12. Te Kanawa on working with Bernstein 13. Problem passages, "Dance at the Gym" (recording & playbacks) 14. Bernstein talks to the press "Dance at the Gym" (recording-contd.) 15. Recording Nina and Alexander Bernstein ("Meeting Scene" - "Dance at the Gym") (recording- contd.) 16. Te Kanawa on West Side Story, "Somewhere" (recording) 17. Troyanos on recording, "America" (rehearsal and recording) 18. One Hand, One Heart (recording) 19. Te Kanawa on singing Bernstein's music 20. Maria (piano rehearsal) 21. Maria (recording) 22. Carreras on the Interruption, "Maria" (recording- contd.) 23. Te Kanawa on working with Berstein 24. A Boy like that "I have love" (recording) 25. Gee, Officer Krupke (recording) 26. Balcony Scene (recording) 27. Berstein on recording West side Story, "Balcony Scene" (recording) 28. End titles

Cast Recordings

West Side Story Original CastWest Side Story (1957 Original Broadway Cast) from Amazon.com Reissued remastered edition starring Carol Lawrence, Chita Rivera, and Larry Kent. Includes orchestral bonus tracks. Songs include: Prologue, Jet Song, Something's Coming, The Dance At The Gym, Maria, Tonight, America, Cool, One Hand, One Heart, Tonight (Qnt And Chor), The Rumble, I Feel Pretty, Somewhere(Ballet), Gee, Officer Krupke, A Boy Like That/I Have A Love, FInale, Gym Dances: Prologue(Allegro Moderato), Gym Dances: Somewhere(Adagio), Gym Dances: Scherzo(Vivace E Leggiero), and Gym Dances: Mambo(Meno Presto)

West Side Story SoundtrackWest Side Story Motion Picture Soundtrack from Amazon.comReissued remastered edition. Songs include: Overture, Prologue, Jet Song, Something's Coming, Dance At The Gym, Maria, America, Tonight, Gee, Officer Krupke, Intermission Music, I Feel Pretty, One Hand, One Heart, Quintet, The Rumble, Somewhere, Cool, A Boy Like That/I Have A Love, Finale, and End Credits

Sheet Music and Books on The Making of West Side Story

West Side Story Vocal SelectionsWest Side Story Edition: Vocal Selections Songs include: America, Maria, One Hand, One Heart, Something's Coming, Somewhere, and Tonight

Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story from Amazon.com Complete scripts for the musical and Shakespeare's classic play in one volume.

Something's Coming - West Side Story book by Misha BersonSomething's Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination. Something's Coming, Something Good, released by Applause Theatre and Cinema books in 2011, is described as "a revealing guide for those who have seen the show; for those who wish to study it for pleasure or inspiration; and for actors, designers, and directors planning on producing it." It is written by Misha Berson, a theater critic for the Seattle Times.

Making of West SIde StoryThe Making of West Side Story from Amazon.com Keith Garebian's look into the behind the scenes work that goes into creating a great Broadway musical.

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